An Obama-appointed D.C. judge notorious for his own personal ties to the corrupt Justice Department is targeting the CBS reporter whose work played an integral role in exposing the FBI’s cover-up of the Hunter Biden laptop scandal.
It comes as impeachment proceedings begin to heat up, raising potential questions as to whether Judge Christopher Cooper’s case might be considered a form of witness intimidation against CBS reporter Catherine Herridge—or, at the very least, an effort to discredit her and to sideline her at a crucial juncture.
In a case with potentially far-reaching press freedom implications, the federal judge is weighing whether to hold in contempt the veteran journalist, who has refused to identify her sources for stories about a Chinese American scientist who was investigated by the FBI but never charged.
Although the case, on its face, has nothing to do with the political intrigue swirling about the White House and Capitol Hill, with the House having recently issued subpoenas for several Biden family members and business associates, the judge himself may be the missing link.
BAGMAN FOR THE WINGMAN
Cooper is the husband of Amy Jeffress, a former top deputy to Obama Attorney General and Wingman Eric Holder.
Jeffress’s connection with the “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation raised questions of a possible conflict of interest when Cooper was the judge assigned to oversee then-special counsel John Durham’s case against former Hillary Clinton lawyer Michael Sussmann—a case that ultimately failed.
Among the bombshell revelations was that the FBI maintained its own private offices inside Sussmann’s law firm, Perkins Coie, which also represented the Democratic National Committee and a litany of high-powered Democrat clients.
Suffice it to say, Cooper himself may have strong ties to the FBI and may be the bureau’s go-to judge to do its dirty work. He’s also been behind other notorious rulings, such as the recent decision to jail former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley 60 days for parading on Capitol Grounds during the Jan. 6 uprising. Cooper claimed that the businessman and father of five lacked sufficient contrition for his actions.
In a similar Jan. 6 case, he punished defendant Chris Alberts for daring to defend himself, reasoning that he deserved seven years by virtue of the fact that he declined to enter a guilty plea amid charges that he brought a concealed firearm into the restricted space for self-defense.
ATTACK ON PRESS PROTECTIONS
The judge previously ordered Herridge, a former Fox News reporter who now works at CBS, to be interviewed under oath about her sources for a series of stories about Yanping Chen.
Chen, who was investigated for years on suspicions she may have lied on immigration forms related to work on a Chinese astronaut program, has since sued the government, saying details about the probe were leaked to damage her reputation.
But after Herridge refused to divulge to Chen’s lawyers how she acquired her information, the scientist’s attorneys are asking Cooper to hold the reporter in contempt—a sanction that could result in steep monetary fines until she complies, if not jail time.
The long-running lawsuit, now nearing a crucial decision point, represents the collision of competing interests: a journalist’s professional obligation to protect sources and an individual’s right to pursue compensation over perceived privacy violations by the government.
It’s being closely watched by media advocates, who say forcing journalists to betray a promise of confidentiality could make sources think twice before providing information to reporters that could expose government wrongdoing.
“Allowing confidential sources to be ordered revealed means that the public will have less information. The more significant the story, the more significant topic, the greater the loss to the public in not knowing the truth about what’s going on,” said longtime First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams.
Abrams represented New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail after being held in contempt for refusing to divulge a source in an investigation of leaks about an undercover CIA agent.
LINKS TO THE LAPTOP
The case is also being closely watched by conservatives who may take note of yet another instance of the two-tiered justice system at work in light of Cooper’s past conflicts of interest and Herridge’s body of work.
While she has not disclosed her political views, she has been at the forefront on several bombshells that have been unfavorable to corrupt Democrats—most recently the collusion between the FBI and the Biden administration to slow-walk the investigation into Hunter Biden’s laptop.
NEW: Multiple “highly credible” FBI whistleblowers have come forward to senior Senate Republican @ChuckGrassley alleging widespread effort to downplay or discredit negative information about the President 's son Hunter Biden, according to letters @CBSNews https://t.co/hw5kGiTFVv pic.twitter.com/xAgMcpdXMu
— Catherine Herridge (@CBS_Herridge) July 26, 2022
Herridge was one of the first to break the news regarding the testimony of IRS whistleblowers who refuted the claims of then-U.S. Attorney David Weiss and the DOJ, saying they had been prevented by the bureaucratic chain of command from filing charges while alleging other various forms of special treatment in the case.
#HunterBiden IRS whistleblower letter “I represent a career IRS Criminal Supervisory Special Agent who has been overseeing the ongoing + sensitive investigation of a high-profile, controversial subject since early 2020 + would like to make protected WB disclosures to Congress.” pic.twitter.com/1ICwsgVOCc
— Catherine Herridge (@CBS_Herridge) April 19, 2023
That ultimately led Weiss—who had intended only to give Hunter Biden a slap on the wrist with a pair of misdemeanor gun charges—to pull back his investigation. Under political pressure, Attorney General Merrick Garland eventually appointed him as special counsel to give him full authority to indict, though some question whether he does, in fact, have autonomy in the probe.
Herridge also revealed in July that the FBI had not closed an investigation into the Biden family’s bribery schemes in Ukraine, as some Democrats had falsely claimed. Those allegations lie at the heart of the House’s current impeachment investigation.
YELLOW: Weiss letter to @LindseyGrahamSC @SenatorDurbin also confirms FD 1023 not closed as some democrats suggested, “..your questions about allegations contained in FBI FD 1023 (Ukraine bribery claims Hunter, Joe Biden) relate to an ongoing investigation.” Credibility record,… pic.twitter.com/LIoI7OwtYd
— Catherine Herridge (@CBS_Herridge) July 11, 2023
It’s not clear when the judge might rule on Chen’s request to hold Herridge in contempt.
The judge acknowledged the stakes in an August decision that forced Herridge to be interviewed, writing, “The Court recognizes both the vital importance of a free press and the critical role that confidential sources play in the work of investigative journalists like Herridge.”
But Cooper said that “Chen’s need for the requested evidence overcomes Herridge’s qualified First Amendment privilege in this case.”
The idea that an FBI mole may be engaged in unapproved leaking likely poses a concern for the bureau as well, despite its routine practice of selectively leaking to media when it wishes to manipulate the media narrative to its own benefit.
And given the political sensitivity of Herridge’s other stories, the FBI may be anxious to know who her secret inside source is, not simply for the purposes of Chen’s legal discovery.
The stories by Herridge were published and aired by Fox News in 2017, one year after the Justice Department told Chen she would not face any charges in its yearslong investigation into whether she may have concealed her former membership in the Chinese military on U.S. immigration forms.
The reports examined Chen’s former alleged ties to the Chinese military and whether she had used a professional school she founded in Virginia to help the Chinese government get information about American servicemembers.
They relied on what her lawyers contend were items leaked from the probe, including snippets of an FBI document summarizing an interview conducted during the investigation, personal photographs, and information taken from her immigration and naturalization forms and from an internal FBI PowerPoint presentation.
Herridge was interviewed under oath in September by a lawyer for Chen, but declined dozens of times to answer questions about her sources, saying at one point: “My understanding is that the courts have ruled that in order to seek further judicial review in this case, I must now decline the order, and respectfully I am invoking my First Amendment rights in declining to answer the question.”
Herridge’s attorney, Patrick Philbin, who served as deputy White House counsel during the Trump administration, said that forcing the journalist to turn over her source or sources would destroy her credibility and hurt her career.
“The First Amendment interest in protecting journalists’ sources is at its highest in cases, like this, involving reporting on national security,” Philbin wrote in court papers. “And confidentiality is critical for government sources who may face punishment for speaking to the press.”
In a statement, Fox News said that “sanctioning a journalist for protecting a confidential source is not only against the First Amendment but would have a chilling effect on journalism across the country as the ability to hold truth to power is essential in a democracy.”
The network said it fully supports Herridge’s position. CBS News said it does as well, asserting in its own statement that the motion for contempt “should be concerning to all Americans who value the role of the free press in our democracy and understand that reliance on confidential sources is critical to the mission of journalism.”
Legal fights over whether journalists should have to divulge a source are rare, though they’ve arisen several times in the last couple decades in Privacy Act cases like the one filed by Chen. Some lawsuits have ended with a hefty Justice Department settlement in place of a journalist being forced to reveal a source, an outcome that remains possible in Herridge’s case.
In 2008, for instance, the Justice Department agreed to pay $5.8 million to settle a lawsuit by Army scientist Steven Hatfill, who was falsely identified as a person of interest in the 2001 Anthrax attacks. That settlement resulted in a contempt order being vacated against a journalist who was being asked to name her sources.
In Herridge’s case, the scientist’s lawyers say they’re seeking a fine that would increase over time until she identifies her source. Unlike in Miller’s situation, it’s a private plaintiff demanding to know the identity of the source rather than representatives of the Justice Department.
Courts have recognized that journalists have a limited privilege to keep confidential their sources, allowing reporters to block subpoenas in the past. But judges in some cases, like Herridge’s, have found that privilege can be outweighed by the need for the information if the person seeking the source has failed to find it through other means.
Many states have reporter shields, which offer various protections from subpoenas and the forced disclosure of sources, but there is no such protection in federal law. Gabe Rottman, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said Herridge’s case is a stark illustration of the need for a federal shield law.
“If sources can’t be given credible assurances of confidentiality, they won’t come forward,” said Rottman, director of the group’s Technology and Press Freedom Project. “And that chills the free flow of information to the public and it limits journalists’ ability to do their jobs.”
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press